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Finneran: Right There in Plain View

Friday, October 27, 2017


They were all historians of a sort. Some were well read. Some were more instinctive men than learned men.

By necessity, all of them were in avid pursuit of information. And all of them were wrong.

Their names were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Their administrations share a dark shadow, the unspeakably sad tragedy of Vietnam.

Ken Burns’ documentary of the Vietnam War evokes many emotions. The war clearly left some ugly scar tissue across America---generational, political, social, and spiritual wounds. In some strange way many of the old battles still linger with us today.

While watching several episodes, two facts in very plain view hit me forcefully, causing me to wonder how such obvious things were overlooked.

There was little mystery about Ho Chi Minh, the political and military leader of North Vietnam. He was consistently predictable about his objective and similarly predictable about his tactics. That these two things---Ho’s objective and his tactics---escaped America’s political leaders is astounding for the fact that each of them carried a substantial chunk of America’s DNA.

Ho’s objective was as American as apple pie. Call it nationalism, call it independence, call it freedom from a distant colonial power. He did not want the French to rule his country. Nor did he want the United States to step into the role of the French as feudal overlords, dictating to the Vietnamese people how they would live their lives. Perhaps this sounds familiar to you---recall the words and themes spoken centuries earlier by Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, Thomas Paine and many other American patriots as they resisted British tyranny. These were Ho’s principles as well.

As for his tactics, Ho may as well have spent a few winters in training with George Washington at Valley Forge.

George Washington was no fool. He was not going to go toe-to-toe with Britain’s Royal Navy and Army regulars. British armed forces were the best-equipped best-trained military forces in the world. No upstart colonial force could stand up to them on a real battlefield. So Washington changed the field, constantly and unpredictably. He conducted a guerilla campaign, flitting in and out of woods and forests, using rivers and lakes and mountain passes as trails of opportunity and escape for his raiding parties. He was not the first guerilla tactician. And Ho made sure that he was not the last, for Ho himself orchestrated a copycat guerilla campaign.

I suspect that the presidential blinders were spawned by the terror and tensions of the then very Cold War. Russian aggression had imposed totalitarian Communist regimes in many Central and Eastern European countries and stated Soviet policy was to overthrow as many democratic capitalist societies as possible. President Truman’s no-nonsense stand on containment of the Soviet threats and Winston Churchill’s speech on the Iron Curtain quite properly upped the ante for all parties. The world seemed to tremble on the edge of doom, for each side now had atomic weapons and advanced aircraft. Couple that fact with the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik and there is little wonder that the threat of Communism corrupted clear thinking on the part of four Presidents.

I don’t think that Ho was any more beholden to the Soviet Union or to Red China than he was to himself and the Vietnamese people. China and the Soviets were useful “allies” because they could and would supply him with the weapons he needed to fight the American colossus. As for the Soviets and the Chinese, they saw an opportunity to create a bloody and expensive abscess on American society, draining both its youth and its willpower.

Make no mistake about it---Ho was a brutal tyrant, employing every ruthless and savage technique associated with Mao, Stalin, and Lenin and their reigns of murder and terror. But he was a Vietnamese tyrant and it should have been left to the Vietnamese people to resolve their internal political conflicts rather than young American boys.

Much was made back then about the “domino theory” of Communist aggression and expansion. Ironies emerge from that domino theory.

One irony was that the biggest domino to fall was America’s standing in the world as well as its standing with many of its own citizens.

A second irony was that learned men, serious students of history, could so easily overlook certain things in plain view.

Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio.


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